CMA General Council (#cmagc): A Success for Canadian Health Care

Advocacy and policy making is just one of the levels I am working at in order to improve health care for Canadians. Sometimes there are direct links to a "Less is More" approach. The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) calls this kind of topic "appropriateness." Although the CMA's annual meeting (General Council) this year only had a few ties to this way of thinking, a few readers have asked me about the event as a whole and so I share my reflections here:

It was an incredible General Council (GC) in Halifax, NS this August. I was able to participate as a Delegate for British Columbia and I cannot explain the feeling of immense purpose and privilege involved in voting on the policy and positions of the national organization of physicians; I was elated to be a part of the formation of some incredibly socially progressive resolutions that will have a real and positive impact on the health of Canadians. We resolved to divest our organization of investments in fossil fuels, to support the principal of a universal/national pharmacare program and a basic guaranteed minimum income, to encourage informed discussions around childhood vaccination in all school age children, and to endorse harm reduction strategies like a national guideline for naloxone availability (for opiate overdoses).

There was some outcry, understandably, from those who live in areas of the country whose economies depend almost entirely on the fossil fuel industry. They were out-voted. We cheered when we made the symbolic gesture – it was not a lot of money for our organization to re-invest in other industries. It was just an incredible statement for our organization to show that the health of the planet affects the health of its people, and we are willing to take the longer view.

The general assembly agreed to disagree on the exact details of how a patient would access physician-assisted death; council continued to extend the privilege of speaking to all attendees which allowed many conscientious objectors (observers, not official delegates) to express their concerns about participation in this, now legal, act. We all trusted in the process of consultation involving government, the public, the CMA (through various other channels besides GC), and other interested bodies (regulatory colleges, insurers, etc.) and will wait to see what this more broad process concludes as far as the exact process for physicians and patients.

It was all quite cordial, actually. The conscientious objectors were respectful and registered their concerns clearly. The voice of youth was loud and clear, with many young physicians and medical students participating as non-voting ambassadors, and a few of us resident and early career physicians voting as delegates. Our push for change was LOUD! The momentum built in the room and many of us felt like serious headway was made for our patients.

As ever, we heard: “you young people are what is ruining our society.” In person the meeting was quite pleasant but those physicians following online, especially on twitter, were outraged.

Mainly, it was those who opposed universal healthcare who were ashamed of what the CMA General Council had done. Everyone voting must be “left wing radicals” and “communists.” All the young people “lack the context” to create and endorse the correct resolutions. 

But, we were there, and we did it. Yes, many of the resolutions we made and voted in may never come to fruition this year. We don’t have unlimited time and finances as an organization and to be effective we must focus on a few narrow issues. However, it is still a big win for Canadians to be able to reference this groundbreaking policy. Setting precedent and having a public record of endorsement of an organization as respected as the CMA may be just enough to help grassroots initiatives get the edge they need to grow into persuasive bringers of change.

Thinking specifically about the “less is more” approach to health care, we also passed many resolutions to help strengthen palliative care programs to make them accessible for more people, and called for regulations around genetic testing/precision medicine and telemedicine [I was a Mover]; we warned that Canada cannot blaze forward with these technologies without consideration of the considerable risks they may pose for patients.

We also recommended that our National Senior’s Strategy and the policy paper "A Prescription for Optimal Prescribing" be updated to include a specific section addressing polypharmacy, which passed on the consent agenda [I was a seconder]. See the video of my colleague, Mover Ralph Jones, speaking briefly to this motion after we knew it had passed, with what I suspect is a nod to Johanna Trimble of IsYourMomOnDrugs? 

The CMA's incoming president for 2016-17 (our choice from BC), Dr Granger Avery, and our colleagues Drs Horvat and Routledge spoke to a disallowed motion that called for efficiency in our health care system. See their video here. Perhaps next year we can refine and submit more motions on appropriateness and efficiency? I have a few drafted already!

In a few narrow ways and in the broader sense, GC was a key step forward in advancing efforts for more appropriate health care. With a strong emphasis on addressing the real determinates of health, the solution of de-emphasizing tests and treatments that are harmful or not necessary also gains strength. Slowly, recognition for the importance of health in all policies is emerging. If a person cannot afford food, it doesn’t really matter if their dose of blood pressure medication is optimized. Right?

It feels fantastic to be a vocal part of an organization of 80 000 Canadian physicians that “get it.”